by Andrew Meier, Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer, Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation (ACRI)
Accessing the built environment, and the services offered within infrastructure, is a constant challenge for people with a disability. These challenges are not just with physical structures and include barriers encountered with areas such as information access and staff training levels.
Barriers for people with a disability can also mean the end of a journey; to quote the late Stella Young, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp”.
This is obviously an issue for rail operators. It does, however, also present an opportunity to look widely and beyond the sector for innovations that would enhance the rail passenger experience for people with a disability.
The Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation (ACRI) is a collaboration of private and government sector bodies who pool their resources to cooperatively investigate issues and opportunities of mutual interest.
ACRI recently partnered with the Rail Industry Safety Standards Board (RISSB) in the United Kingdom on a horizon scan, searching globally to identify countries leading in accessibility, particularly for service innovations being deployed in the wider transport sector, hospitality and retail.
Acknowledging the current review of the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport (DSAPT), ACRI’s work in this area seeks to highlight the breadth of opportunity to continually work towards a universal travel experience.
What rail can learn from other sector innovations
The availability of accurate information on infrastructure accessibility, and the contribution of technology to the collection and dissemination of that data, emerged as a key element from the horizon scan.
Crowd sourcing and online sharing by the disability community of access details (e.g. routes through a city with presence of lifts and ramps) is enabling more informed navigation of urban environments.
Importantly, this information is then widely available to transport operators to aid infrastructure investment decisions and also for app development.
The scan was deliberately inclusive of a broad range of disabilities and did not focus solely on physical access.
Innovations identified in the transport sector (and in this case also already deployed in sporting stadiums in Australia) include quiet rooms designed to aid the travel experience of people on the autism spectrum and those accompanying them.
These areas acknowledge that noise and activity levels in some environments can be overwhelming.
In Pittsburgh International Airport in the United States, ‘Presley’s Place’ not only offers a quiet space, but also incorporates a mockup of an aircraft interior, enabling socialisation with the plane environment before boarding.
The benefits of facilities like Presley’s Place also extend beyond those directly using the space, positively impacting passengers and staff within that transport environment.
The scan also identified initiatives in the retail sector to improve service provision to people with dementia.
This includes both design enhancements for retail spaces and awareness training for staff. This holistic approach was also evident in the hospitality industry.
A Swedish hotel chain has applied universal design and service principles to its properties, including fabric selections made with guidance from asthma experts and walking stick holders at reception counters.
These and other accessibility elements are publicised online to highlight their universal approach to customer service.
Nothing for us without us – engagement is essential
What was regularly confirmed throughout the scan was that advancing accessibility has universal community benefits.
Naturally, there are also benefits for those with temporary disabilities, but increased accessibility for tourists, who are both infrequent users and potentially transporting luggage, is a further example.
ACRI is now following the horizon scan with a systematic review that may identify any further innovations, and then a series of workshops to explore those with potential for pilot trial.
These workshops are planned to include representatives from rail operators, assistive technology professionals and, most importantly, transport accessibility user groups.
Evident throughout the scan was the significance of engaging people with a disability in the selection, design and implementation of accessibility enhancements.
“Nothing for us without us” is not only inclusionary, but harnessing the specific knowledge of needs and experiences that people with disability have within the planning process leads to improved in-service outcomes.
Equipping rail transport for accessibility greatly benefits from a universal approach to knowledge and in turn, results in universal benefits.
Rail travel and disability: An international perspective on accessibility can be freely downloaded from the ACRI website at acri.net.au/acri-research-projects/